Systems of theSpace
By Giles Moss on July 1st
A few weeks ago we explained why on earth we as a Fringe venue operator have branched off into developing our own software. (Recap: partly as a result of wanting to offer something different to the prevailing masses; partly youthful exuberance; partly outright insanity).
Our first endeavour was to build a box office system which would support the various unusual features of our operation. We have many quirks in how we operate - we think they differentiate us from other large scale Fringe operators - our ‘special sauce’, if you will. For example, we pay performing companies their cash box office takings directly after their performance – we’ve always done this and it’s of huge benefit to low-budget performers who may be relying on their proceeds to fund the cost of their time at the Fringe. So a critical feature of our solution had to be that we retained support for these unique aspects.
We also wanted to build a system that was exceedingly tolerant of things going wrong. We’d had years of experience of building robust Fringe theatres which require minimal maintenance and can quickly be fixed if individual parts failed. We wanted to take this same approach with our box office system – after all, if it did break, it would one of us who’d get the call to fix it – probably during valuable pub time! The absolute worst case scenario was something going wrong to the extent that we couldn’t sell a waiting customer a ticket, or we lost our record of how many tickets were sold – almost every design decision we made was underpinned by being sure there was a way to keep the customer service side going no matter what. The consequences of failure were readily apparent at the time; the Fringe’s own system had fallen over in 2008 with serious consequences.
So, early in 2009, or box office system, TicketSPACE, was born. It was based on the workflow that we’d established in its predecessor, a Microsoft Access-backed system called AutoBox, but extended to support multiple box offices. Back in 2009, internet connectivity in our box offices was patchy at best (at theSpace on the Mile, it was based on a low-speed ADSL line which dropped out if you looked at it the wrong way) – so TicketSPACE was designed such that a site could go completely offline and still function internally.
The software architecture for TicketSPACE is based on a set of core services hosted in our data centre sites which continuously synchronise data with a local, or ‘site’, server at each of our Fringe venue sites. This site server database is the definitive record of sales data, whilst the central platform is definitive for performance and show data. Splitting the definitive data locations in this manner gives us the offline features we need while the Fringe is running and gives us a central platform to manage all our company and show data year-round. That central platform is managed by another application called InfoSPACE – we’re not that imaginative when it comes to naming things - which supports all of our back office teams, Production, Pre-production, Box Office and Press.
In the event we lose Internet connectivity to a venue, we can go on selling tickets on site as we have the definitive data right there on the site server; updates to the central platform are queued until connectivity is restored. We’ve had ADSL lines severed by scaffolders, over-zealous firewalls blocking traffic and cross-site Ethernet runs go wrong but have always been able to keep selling tickets.
TicketSPACE began as a simple application but has grown with us; over the ten years it’s been around we’ve added support for credit card sales, cash office management, merchandise sales, automated settlements, finance system integration etc. – all designed to our specific requirements. There are of course some things things it doesn’t do - and we annually evaluate to see whether a switch to another system should be considered - but so far it’s served our requirements well.
One of the early benefits of TicketSPACE was for ticket printing. As we expanded it became clear that our traditional ticketing, which used raffle tickets or pre-printed books of tickets per performance, wasn’t scalable and the only sensible way forward was a system that printed tickets per sale. This was written into TicketSPACE right from the start. On the hardware side the most cost-effective solution in 2009 was to use simple receipt printers, the sort you’d find at every till in the country. We used 80mm till rolls specially created with a centre perforation to give us a two-part ticket. These were quirky but served well for some time, even if they did have a habit of coming apart by themselves. Eventually the levels we were operating at meant we could re-examine ticket printing and in 2016 we waved goodbye to the till rolls and moved to thermal fanfold tickets, colour printed with our own background. Of course we still applied a bit of our quirkiness and designed a portrait ticket! Nowadays we get through tens and tens of thousands of tickets every year all printed on Stimare printers and they look, even if we do say so ourselves, fantastic.
Our production management software, InfoSPACE, has also grown with us. InfoSPACE was conceived as a way for us to scale our pre-production operation from the 2-3 people who’d historically had all contact with performing companies, right from the first email (via traditional paper mail in the early days!) to the end of the Fringe. As we grew, we needed to add a dedicated pre-production team - this year a team of 6 handled over 400 companies. This small team is commonly different individuals to the on-site venue management teams, so we needed a way to record details of pre-production information like set & prop details, safety notes and contact numbers to ensure a seamless handover of accurate information.
From those early beginnings, InfoSPACE grew into our central repository for all production related data. Like TicketSPACE, it’s grown over the years and functions have been added; Not only does it handle all our company and show information, it now powers a dedicated portal which performers can use to manage and monitor their show details and sales, feeds show information to our website, handles the production and distribution of email newsletters, feeds our venue schedules into online calendars, manages the TicketSPACE reference data, feeds our digital signage, produces reports and is the key integration point for the external Fringe and finance systems.
We’ve also spun off a number of functions into systems of their own; one of our developers has been working closely with our Press Office to give them their own platform (PressSPACE) for managing the hundreds of press releases, production images, reviews and poster artwork which pass through their hands each year. And our recruitment and HR teams manage our staff records using another internally developed system called - you guessed it - StaffSPACE.
It may seem odd that we spend so much time working on something which has nothing to do with the actual process of operating theatres at the Fringe, but every little feature or tweak we make means we can support our service being exactly how we want it, saves our team time or improves what we offer to our companies and audiences. Getting all the little stuff right is part of what makes us, we like to think, the best place to perform at the Edinburgh Fringe. When you email us and our team looks up your company to, or you look at our website, buy a ticket at our box office, check out the next show in a venue on our departure boards - it’s all using systems and platforms written by us.